This passionate tempest over “liberalism” strikes me as utterly beside the point. I doubt that Putin has spent any time reading Locke, or Hume, or even cares to. I am absolutely certain that Trump never has so much as thought about it. And I also have my doubts about some of the journalists and commentators who are indignantly stepping up to defend “liberalism” against that sneering autocrat Putin, as if this were some kind of ideological war shaping up against a new Red Menace.
It is true that Russia has never been a liberal society; it missed the whole Enlightenment and most of what followed in Europe. And yet, if you ask most educated Russians, including Putin, if they aspire to move forward according to the core principles of liberalism — individual freedom, equality before the law and consent of the governed — I am pretty sure they will all shout “yes!” in cheerful unison. Indeed, Russia under Putin has made at least some progress in this direction [compared with predecessor Russian states, definitely].
What Putin means by “liberalism” is the new, scary and increasingly dysfunctional things he sees happening in the West. When they say “liberal world order,” Putin hears US hegemony. Putin would only need to read the NYT to perceive the galloping effects of globalization, unfettered mass migration, growing income inequality and profound political polarization afflicting many Western countries. The US in particular no longer seems to be an orderly middle-class-consensus-based society. Putin’s negative reactions to changing gender roles and gay pride, etc, may be obnoxious to me and you, but they do not differ significantly from those of any garden variety American conservative. Hell, even Joe Biden shared those opinions not so very long ago.
So, instead of hastening to take up the shining shield of liberalism to oppose the supposedly despotic cudgel of Putinism, why doesn’t everyone just lighten up? What if Western politicians, journalists and intellectuals prioritize their own disastrously mounting problems, and leave Putin and the Russians to wrestle with theirs?